Monday, August 30, 2021

Christian Libertinism

Thanks to Hurricane Ida, parts of Louisiana are now underwater and much more of the state without power - coincidentally on the actual anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. At the other end of the world, we are presumably hours away from final withdrawal from Kabul Airport - and, by extension, from our disastrous forever war in Afghanistan. Crises do not come on a schedule defined by our human convenience, however. So, while all this is happening, we are still in the throes of a nationwide (not to mention global) pandemic, which has unnecessarily worsened in this country thanks to the irresponsibly destructive behavior of those who have refused to get vaccinated and their irresponsibly scandalous empowerment by those who ought to know better and whose positions in society mean they have a duty to know and do better.

Conservative religious writer and lawyer David French posted an excellent article on Sunday that addressed the religious dimension of this ongoing crisis, in the context of the Evangelical community with which he identifies. He warns that "significant parts of the Christian Right are enabling, excusing, and validating Evangelical behavior that is gravely wrong and dangerous to the lives and health of their fellow citizens." He goes on to cite several examples of this escalating evil, such as pastors who offer "religious exemption forms" to those seeking excuses to avoid vaccine mandates and the bizarre policy of "neutrality" regarding the covid vaccine on the part of the National Religious Broadcasters (an association of some 1100 member associations). French underscores that his "neutrality" is in regard to "a vaccine that offers a lifeline out of a pandemic that has slain more than 650,000 Americans."

French's diagnosis is direct and challenging:

As we approach nine months of vaccine availability and nine months of flood-the-zone coverage of vaccine safety and efficacy, it is clear that much (though certainly not all) of our remaining refusal problem is not one of information but one of moral formation itself. The very moral framework of millions of our fellow citizens - the way in which they understand the balance between liberty and responsibility - is gravely skewed. ...

I also fear that our relentless right-wing focus on religious liberty has obscured two realities - that our liberties have limits when they collide with the rights of others, and that the exercise of our liberty carries with it profound moral responsibility.

French comes down especially hard on the "extreme and dangerous assertion of individual autonomy at the expense of colleagues and neighbors," which he emphasizes "is not a legitimate exercise of religious liberty." Indeed he considers "the majority of Christians seeking religious exemptions" as "using religion as a mere pretext for their real concern."

As a lawyer, French has long been fighting the religious freedom fight. so it is that much more significant that he has become so concerned that religious liberty concerns have "created a sense of religious entitlement that obscures the desperate need for religious responsibility." He rightly recognizes the self-destructive political and moral monster that has been created.The moral dimension should be obvious, when liberty is pursued "simply to satisfy our desires or appease our fears." That goes back to the "gravely skewed" moral framework French earlier alluded to - an increasingly endemic problem in so much of American religiosity.

The political problem flows inexorably from that. When one reads commentators complaining about those who put "religious liberty" in scare quotes, one wonders when they will understand some of the reasons this is happening. As French notes, "when we pursue the freedom to make our neighbors sick, we violate the social compact and undermine our moral standing in politics, law, and culture. Christina libertinism becomes a long-term threat to religious liberty itself."

One could not have said it better!

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The First Fruits of God's Creatures

The statutes and decrees Moses taught the people to observe were a sign of God’s special closeness in the regular routine of their daily lives. The Torah challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations[Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8]. The conscientious observance of God’s Law was intended to transform every aspect of daily life into an experience of God’s presence by giving meaning and purpose and structure to the regular routines of daily life. In the words of ancient Jewish scholars, “We must come out of Egypt every day.” In other words, life is one long Exodus experience, through which God guides us by his commandments.

For this reason, for centuries devout Jews have faithfully observed not only the 613 laws explicitly listed in the Bible, but many other observances designed to shore up the fundamentals of the Law. In times of persecution, this so-called “Fence around the Law” could call forth great heroism – as in the case of the Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, who used his limited supply of drinking water to observe the rules regarding hand-washing, even at the risk of dying of thirst.

So why this battle about hand-washing in today’s Gospel [Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23]?

A little over a year ago, when the covid-19 pandemic first took over our lives, we all learned to wash our hands all the time, a good habit which hopefully has become routine. The ancients were not indifferent to hygiene, but they lacked our uniquely modern medical understanding of viruses and germs. So this argument was not about taking proper health precautions, unlike contemporary conflicts about mask-wearing and vaccines.

In 1st-century Judaism, the Pharisees aspired to combine religious observance, with life in society – unlike others who went off to live an ascetic life in the desert. They promoted a day-to-day spirituality. They sought to make the Law come alive in daily experience, relating its commandments to various spheres of life – living an active, involved life but remaining (as St. James says in today’s 2nd reading) unstained by the world[James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27]

At Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus, God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” In their desire to build a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees (who, like Jesus, were laypeople, not Temple priests) took seriously the  image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments, and portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees in the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.

Identifying what is essential to living an authentic moral life, sorting that out from the cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, culture, and language into his Church.

On the other hand, creating and maintaining a cultural envelope within which one can live a moral life is also important. Ultimately, what we do does matter, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned against in today’s 2nd reading. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding moral standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Imagine if we all gave up folly!)

The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were just not getting it, were completely missing the point.

Of course, this is not a temptation unique to 1st-century Pharisees. It is a universal temptation that can cause all of us to miss the point at any time and in any place.

In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, August 21, 2021

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Politics at the Water's Edge

In 1948 Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously said that "politics stops at the water's edge" as he cooperated with the Truman administration in creating bipartisan support for NATO. For decades thereafter a "bipartisan foreign policy" became the American ideal - and to a considerable extent the political practice as well. 

But, just as the much romanticized (indeed idealized) domestic legislative "bipartisanship" of the post-war era was (at the very least) overrated and is in any case now no longer a reality, likewise our once much prized "bipartisan foreign policy" has also receded into the mists of history. For example, back in April, Republican Senator Josh Hawley criticized President Biden for postponing the withdrawal from Afghanistan that Trump had arranged in his deal with the Taliban. “President Biden should withdraw troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never. It’s time for this forever war to end,” Hawley argued. Now, however, when our originally Trump-inspired withdrawal has unsurprisingly encountered dangers and difficulties, the same Senator Hawley has said: “We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal. This is the product of Joe Biden’s catastrophic failure of leadership,” he protested. “It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor the capacity to lead. He must resign.” 

By comparison, it is worth recalling that back in the 1980s President Regan sent Marines into Lebanon. Then, after more than 200 of them were killed in a single attack, he responded by opting to withdraw them. But no one seriously demanded Regan resign. We still had the remnants of a "bipartisan foreign policy" then.


Yet, while there were undeniable benefits to the "bipartisan foreign policy" of the 1940s and 1950s in extricating the U.S. from an unrealistic and imaginary isolationism, that "bipartisan foreign policy," like the chimera of domestic legislative "bipartisanship" that politicians, the media, and many voters like to romanticize, also had its problematic aspects.

In fact, recent Republican hypocrisy notwithstanding, for decades now our bipartisan foreign policy establishment and their media fan club have repeatedly led us astray through their bias toward action - almost always understood as military action. If Kabul 2021 represents a symbolic reprise of Saigon 1975, similarly The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock's Afghanistan Papers tell a somewhat analogous tale to the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

Both as candidate and as president, Trump rejected (at least rhetorically) the elite consensus in favor of apparently unending military actions that our "bipartisan foreign policy" had become. His deal with the Taliban (a poorly camouflaged "surrender") was obviously flawed, and given his personal unpredictability we obviously cannot know for sure what President Trump would in fact have done when the May 1 deadline to leave actually arrived. (Whatever he would have done, we can safely assume that the Republicans who are complaining now would have mostly supported him.) In any case, Trump did, however, set the stage for a final exit. President Biden, who was once part of the foreign policy establishment consensus, seems to have learned a similar lesson and so finally followed through on withdrawal, to the consternation of so many politicians and pundits who seem incapable of imagining our ever not being militarily engaged in that part of the world. (Of course, not following through with Trump's deal would not have meant a return to the status quo ante but would likely have led to a direct armed confrontation with the further empowered Taliban.)

All political activity (apart from voting) is largely elite activity. The problem is not that there are foreign policy elites as such, but the special circumstances and mystification which increasingly insulate them from accountability.

As my one-time academic mentor Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015) wrote in his magisterial study of Alexis deTocqueville (1805-1859): "Traditionally foreign policy has been the domain most resistant to democratizing, the most remote from popular participation, the preserve of statecraft and of arcana imperii where elites could display their unique abilities in the practice of the higher politics of raison d'√©tat. Foreign policy appears as the most authentic preserve of the premodern political, of an anciennet√©, where interest is idealized into a univocal and mythical form, the national interest, and thus reclaims its archaic objectivity." [Tocqueville Between Two Worlds (Princeton U. Pr., 2001, p. 491]

Wolin highlighted how the aristocratic deTocqueville, who served as France's Foreign Minister in 1849, saw an aggressive foreign policy as a vehicle for naturally rallying citizens to subordinate their petty interests to the nation's interests. The same might be said, neither more nor less pejoratively, of our post-World War II foreign policy establishment, and the widespread bipartisan consensus it has fostered in favor of action (increasingly military action) as central to maintaining our international position and role as an "indispensable nation." (That striking expression was apparently conjured up in the mid-1990s by political journalist Sidney Blumenthal and foreign policy historian James Chace to describe what they understood to be America’s post-Cold War world role. They passed it on to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who then made it famous.)

There was wisdom in deTocqueville's understanding. There was certainly some reality to the unique post-Cold War position of the United States and correspondingly some wisdom in attempting to deploy that position in constructing a stable world order. As Cicero said, however, historia magistra vitae ("History is the teacher of life"). We now have the life lessons from three historical eras spanning some three quarters of a century: the post-World War II era, the post-Cold War era, and the post-9/11 era. And what that history teaches is that we have all too often misread the meaning of our unique position and misused our indispensability.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

After Afghanistan


In the last 10 days in Afghanistan, the U.S. has executed the largest airborne evacuation in history (more than 70,000 as of today). Obviously, if we know this, that means it has been reported. But that reporting pales in comparison with the over-the-top coverage of human tragedies, chaos, and confusion at the Kabul Airport. Of course, the media is attracted to dramatic, heart-wrenching images, and contemporary journalists increasingly like to fancy themselves as anti-government attack dogs. Sooner or later, however, and more likely sooner than later, the U.S. will be out of there. Undoubtedly, some unfortunates will be tragically left behind, but many, very many, will have been evacuated. "Wars are not won by evacuations," Churchill famously observed in 1940. Indeed, Dunkirk was a disastrous defeat militarily, but that is not what we remember about it now.

Our neocon foreign policy establishment will, of course, highlight the fact that we have indeed lost the war and will make the case why we should have stayed - presumably forever. They should reread Machiavelli: The desire for victory often blinds people so that they see nothing but what seems favorable to their object (The Discourses, Book III, Chapter xlviii). Meanwhile, Republicans will hypocritically accuse President Biden of "surrender." Democrats will correctly retort that it was actually Trump who "surrendered," negotiating with the Taliban, making an agreement with them, and setting an even earlier (May 1) date for total withdrawal. One can imagine similar debates and recriminations in 1780s London coffeehouses, the House of Commons, and Windsor Castle after the British forces finally withdrew from the newly independent United States. (To their credit, however, the British remained in New York in 1782 until they were able to evacuate all their American allies.)

Meanwhile, Afghanistan will go back to being Afghanistan, having once again proved false our absurd American fantasy that a long-term combination of U.S. military force, lots of cash, and a corrupt client government in Kabul can turn a very different society and culture, with a history longer than that of the U.S., into some contrived copy of an alien American culture. After all, it is not as if Afghanistan were some ahistorical blank slate, when the U.S. successfully intervened to dislodge Al Qaeda from the country's territory in the aftermath of 9/11. It is an ancient central Asian nation with a long history and complex culture, a conservative tribal society of powerful local warlords, a land-locked country whose progressive royal family and central government struggled through the 20th-century to maintain Afghanistan's independence and sovereignty in a dangerous neighborhood dominated by imperial power rivalries, then World War, and then Cold War. The 40-year reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973) was a relatively peaceful but contentious period of modestly paced modernization (more material than social) that tried to combine residual respect for the religious establishment with providing social stability and increased prosperity, something the country largely lost after the 1973 coup and the subsequent decades of civil wars and foreign interventions (first Soviet, then American). It was the Taliban that infamously blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas (photo), but they were neither the first nor will they likely be the last to try to blow up the country and impose their sectarian will within that intractable "graveyard of empires."

Our American ability to project enormous military power is one of our greatest national resources. Even so, it is inevitably a limited resource. Unfortunately, however, one of the apparently longest lasting legacies of our 20th-century experience is our continuing commitment to military power as our principal - if not sole - source of power, an attraction not confined only to neocons but also widely diffused in our society and mainstream media.

Mesmerized by the experience of total victory in World War II, we seem unable to manage more normal conflicts where the endpoint is some sort of achievable settlement short of victory. (Sometimes stalemate, as in Korea, is the best outcome. Sometimes defeat, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, is the unfortunate but inevitable outcome.) Moreover, whereas World War II was a collective national effort in which all played a part, Afghanistan has long been as remote emotionally for most Americans as it is physically. But illusions are hard to dispel, and (as happened after Vietnam) we are as likely to learn the wrong lessons from Afghanistan as the right ones.

Meanwhile tens of thousands have fled Afghanistan, and it is up to us to assist them to resettle and rebuild their lives. Already, the nativist media machine has begun banging its drum about how, having invaded Afghanistan, we are now being invaded by Afghans. But assimilating refugees is one thing the U.S. has historically been very good at. We are, after all, "a nation of immigrants," past and present nativist fear mongering notwithstanding. May this important task overtake our obsession with political and mass media recriminations and salvage at least something from this sorry story.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

40 Years of Religious Life

Forty years ago today, on the afternoon of Monday, August 24, 1981, I arrived at the Mount Paul Novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. We were a strangely assorted class of eight novices, who assembled there that late summer day, brought together by God’s grace and our own personal perception of vocation. In the end, of the eight of us, only three are active priests, and I am the only one still in religious life – an outcome no one would have predicted back in August 1981.

Our Novice Master, I later learned, had been praised by 20th-century America's celebrity monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in his Journal on August 9, 1962: “What is the Church becoming? When someone like Fr. Stransky is here, I think she is waking up.” Ordained in 1957, he had been sent to Europe as a young priest to study missiology. There, he had eventually gone to work for Pope John XXIII’s newly created Secretariat for Christian Unity and had been heavily involved in the exciting, transformative event that was the Second Vatican Council. From 1970 to 1978, he had served as President of the community, implementing the “experimental” post-conciliar constitution. After serving as novice master for much of the 1980s, he would then go on to serve as Director of an Ecumenical Theological Institute in Jerusalem, where I would spend a happy summer in 1993. Meanwhile, back at Oak Ridge in 1981, we were his first class of novices. So in a sense our novitiate was a learning experience for literally all of us!

Rounding out the priests’ community, there was also an Assistant Novice Master and a retired priest, who had been ordained in 1947 (the year before I was born). He had no formal role in the Novitiate Formation program, but he would become a particularly close friend and confidant in later years.
That was the 11 of us. As for the place, the Novitiate occupied some 1100 acres of rocks and trees in a then still surprisingly semi-rural region of New Jersey some 50 miles northwest of New York City on the way to the Delaware Water Gap. It may have been reasonable commuting distance from the city and part of the New York media market, but it seemed like a whole other world. For a thoroughly urban person such as myself, it really was a very new and different world, one which required considerable adaptation, but which in time I came to appreciate and love. It was about as ideal a location for a novitiate as I can imagine. (In 2010, when the property was sold to the State of New Jersey, I cried at the farewell celebration.)

The driveway (photo) was 9/10 of a mile long and led to a clearing in the woods containing a lovely lake and a (much less lovely) novitiate house, which could easily have passed for an ugly 1950s high school. At one time there had apparently been one or more nickel mines on the property (which was reputed also to have uranium underground). Then at some point it had become the site of a hunting lodge. (Our neighbors still hunted deer on our property and occasionally provided us with fresh venison to eat. They also cleared the snow from our long driveway, thus compensating for our Luddite-like lack of proper equipment.)

After the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which standardized much of Roman Catholic religious formation, religious communities were required to have a proper, canonical-year novitiate. The old hunting lodge (of which only the foundation remained in my time) served as a novitiate house until the 1950s, when the increasing numbers of novices required the construction of the newer, more modern building.

The first floor contained a simple but attractive chapel, the refectory (dining room), an appropriately institutional kitchen (with a small apartment for our cook), a small reading room, and a bunch of bedrooms. The second floor (where I lived) contained many more bedrooms and a somewhat set-off wing with guest rooms and the priests’ common room. The basement had a laundry room, a library, and a large novices’ common room, which opened out onto the back side of the novitiate facing the lake.
The community's constitutions prescribe that the novitiate provide “a period of introduction, formation, and discernment … through a format of structured prayer, of a program of apostolic work, and of instruction.” My novitiate did indeed attempt to do all of that, although in a somewhat less structured, somewhat looser manner than might have been expected.  Part of that was, of course, the era in which I was a novice. The post-conciliar confusion had taken quite a toll on religious life in general, and considerable confusion still reigned then throughout the Church.

Perhaps we all might have benefited in some ways from a somewhat more well defined approach. After all, the basic function of a novitiate is to facilitate the transition form secular life to religious life, a challenging task in any era but perhaps increasingly so in ours. On the other hand, the lack of regimentation and the tolerance of our individual idiosyncrasies was probably what somehow enabled all of those individual idiosyncrasies to be safely absorbed. Repeatedly, we were reminded that the novitiate was an atypical year, intended to prevent one from escaping from oneself, from others, or from God. And so, I believe, it turned out for me.

Our class of eight was amazingly diverse and fractious. Unsurprisingly, there were occasional inter-personal conflicts, with rippling effects on the larger group. In retrospect, it is amazing – and a true tribute to our Novice Master’s patience – that all eight of us made it together to First Profession in August. 

While our novitiate was spiritually and emotionally challenging, it was (like modern life in general) physically much less so than in earlier times. We could keep and spend our own money (which perhaps highlighted the very contemporary problem of inequality in religious communities). We ate well. As for labor, we didn’t farm the land or raise chickens or pigs. Our work assignments were mainly more like routine maintenance. Probably the major physical challenge for us was the cold – not so much outdoors, but indoors. (I say this as someone who, all my life, has liked and preferred winter to summer’s heat and humidity!) That winter of 1981-1982 was an especially cold one in northern New Jersey, and hence something of a challenge in a building, built before buildings were well insulated as most contemporary structures now are. So, for most of the winter, we taped all the windows and extra doors tightly shut. To save money on fuel, we kept the central heating low and relied heavily on wood burning stoves. The chapel, for example, was almost always cold all winter, and we commonly wore coats and even gloves to Mass. We all were bought electric blankets. I had never used one before. But there I would often slip into my bed late in the afternoon to warm up under the electric blanket for 10-15 minutes before Mass! None of that was oppressive, of course, but it makes for good shared memories and some fun stories.
Our regular routine started most mornings with Morning Prayer, followed by breakfast and “Personal Quiet Time.” Typically, we then had a “Conference” – instruction on some topic or a talk by a visiting  priest or some other invited speaker. Sometimes we might have another “Conference” in the afternoon. At least once a week, sometimes more often, we had a “work period” in the afternoon, which, as I said, was mainly more or less routine maintenance. Sometimes the afternoon was “free.” At 4:45 p.m., we had Mass in the chilly chapel. Then at 6:00 priests and novices had dinner together in the refectory, cooked by our old German cook, who had worked there for decades. After dinner, we usually had Evening Prayer and occasionally some other activity as well. Sometimes some or all of us would go out to a movie or to the shopping mall.

On Tuesdays, after Morning Prayer we went to our “apostolates.” I was one of three assigned to a home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of Sisters founded in France by Saint Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879). The Sisters were wonderful models of consecrated religious life and authentic service, and I truly treasured my time with them. I was fascinated by their founder’s story and spiritually uplifted by their community’s charism and history. (There was even a closer connection, since when they first disembarked in New York their first American donation was from Fr. Isaac Hecker.) Besides helping to serve lunch, we spent most of our time talking with the residents and joining with them in various activities. Obviously, many of the residents suffered from physical and/or cognitive disabilities, which inevitably limited our "ministry" there. But I learned to look forward to my Tuesdays there. 

The Novitiate taught me two venerably traditional lessons, which I very much needed to learn – both of them formulated centuries ago in The Imitation of Christ.  The first was that different people benefit from practicing different devotional styles “as each shall deem most profitable" (I, 19). The second concerned the importance of perseverance in the spiritual life, regardless of its apparent appeal or efficacy. "The profit and increase of spiritual life comes not only when you have devotion, but rather, when you can humbly and patiently bear the withdrawal and absence of devotion, yet not cease your prayers or leave undone your other customary good works" (III, 7).

In 1981, the eight of us were still considered a small class. There were some larger classes in the years that followed, but soon the many changes in Church and society caught up with us - as they have with most religious communities, contributing to an increasingly uncertain present and even more unknowable future, yet not without hope. That said, here I am forty years later. And I remain overwhelmingly grateful to God for the great gift, grace, privilege, and pleasure of still being here after 40 years!

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

After 20 Years of "Forever War"

For my generation, the horrifying images of the Fall of Kabul can only recall the comparably horrifying and indelibly imprinted images of the Fall of Saigon in 1975 (photo). There are decided differences, of course, between the two calamities. There had been more of a decent interval between the end of direct American military involvement in South Vietnam and that country's conquest by North Vietnam. Also, in 1975, President Ford was advocating for intervention to salvage the situation, whereas it was Congress (flexing its post-Watergate foreign-policy and war-powers muscles) that prevented him from doing so. In the Afghanistan case, in contrast, it was President Trump who negotiated the withdrawal and President Biden who implemented it. That said, both were wars which the American people had already distanced themselves from. In the case of Vietnam, that was the inevitable consequence of Nixon's having successfully disempowered the anti-war movement by eliminating the draft. A "professional" or "volunteer" (i.e., non-conscript) army makes it easier for governments to engage in military adventurism, while distancing most citizens (if they can still be classified as such) from the costs and consequences of military conflicts. The conspicuous contrast between the commonly shared sacrifice of the "greatest generation" (including on the part of civilians on the home front) and President Bush's post-9/11 injunction to "go shopping" has been a staple component of this conversation. 

It is a truism that voters rarely base their vote on foreign policy. Politically, President Ford's defeat in 1976 was not due to his having "lost" Vietnam. Republicans may try to revive their old "Who lost China?" strategy against Biden rand the Democrats regarding Afghanistan, but it is unlikely to matter much - except perhaps among those troubled souls who still believe Biden wasn't lawfully elected anyway. (Of course, the actual withdrawal policy was initiated by President Trump, who had to be dissuaded from inviting the Taliban to Camp David! But why should that stop Republicans from fundraising off this humanitarian tragedy?)

The really important parallel between the way the Vietnam and Afghan wars eventually ended (besides the personal and humanitarian tragedies) is the inevitable consequence for America's falling standing in a world in which U.S. commitments can no longer be trusted by clients and allies. The President may claim "America is back" to his heart's content, but the world now knows otherwise, having seen otherwise. All of which, however, should bring us back to the more basic question of what kinds of commitments ought to be undertaken in the first place, what kinds of political process should be employed to make such commitments, and what kind of society we have to be (or become) in order to follow through on our commitments.

The initial intervention in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was justified by the need to eliminate Afghanistan as a 'safe haven" for Al Queda. The problem, however, was that it never became clear how that intervention could end without returning sooner or later to the status quo ante, which, of course, seems to be exactly were we are again now. The imminent 20th anniversary of 9/11 will see the Taliban flag flying triumphantly in Kabul, connoting (if not confirming) the long-term viability of Islamic terrorism in that region and (especially for its own constituency and for recruitment) its long-term superiority to the infidel West.

But what exactly was the alternative? As President Biden said again on Monday, “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces." It seems safe to suggest that there will always be a case that can be made for a longer lasting military commitment. After all, the U.S still stations troops in Germany - 76 years after the end of World War II. And, of course the Korean War has never officially ended, and there are still American troops in South Korea. It has been argued that a small force stationed in Kabul and at the nearby Air Base might have propped up the Afghan government and maintained the pre-Taliban status quo - at least as long as the Taliban were willing to go along with that. But why and for how long would they? And then what? 

It has often been alleged that the Vietnam War was less about trying definitively to defeat the enemy than it was about postponing the inevitable, because, of course, no one wanted the Red Flag to be raised in Saigon on his watch. Something similar seems to be implicit in the idea that the fourth Afghan War president should have somehow kept this conflict going long enough in order to leave it for his successor. In effect that means that another year or two or ten would have had to become a permanent commitment - a "forever war." 

In Vietnam, the North had nationalism on its side. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has religion. The American-trained and American-equipped Afghan army was no match for the smaller force of Taliban true believers - once the guarantee of American support was in fact no longer guaranteed. Like the Iraqis who retreated and collapsed in the conflict with ISIS in 2014, the Afghans - for all their numbers, their training, and their equipment - could not compete with the Taliban, and seemed not even really to try to do so, once the all-important guarantee of American back-up, signified by American physical military presence, was no longer really guaranteed.

To be sure, permanent guarantees are not inherently illegitimate, but can they be legitimately made in circumstances where the home front commitment is, at most, minimal? Many Americans are rightly appalled by the apparent American unpreparedness and the consequently catastrophic images the word is seeing. But how many American actually would support an open-ended "forever war" commitment? 

The theory supporting prolonging the U.S. presence in Afghanistan year after year was that we were developing and empowering a government and military that would in time provide a viable alternative to the Taliban. That theory seems now to have been disproved. The Trump Administration's deal with the Taliban eviscerated the illusion of a long-term American guarantee and so set in motion a process of local, then provincial, then finally national surrender. The only surprise is how fat it all happened. All of which suggests that American good intentions inevitably turned into a destructive hubris that thought and acted as if a foreign society and culture could be remade by the sheer force of American insistence. Sadly we have seen this movie before. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

What's All This Fuss About Hungary?

In the Roman Calendar, today is the commemoration of Saint Stephen (967-1038), the first Catholic King of Hungary, who received the Holy Crown of Hungary (photo) from the pope in the year 1000 and was canonized by another pope a mere 50 years after his death. Historically, Hungary has at times been a significant player in the politics of Central Europe, eventually even forcing the restructuring and renaming of the Hapsburg Empire in 1867. Hungary's last king, Blessed Charles IV (Kaiser Karl I of Austria), the last to wear the Holy Crown, could yet join Stephen as a saint of the Church. However, his earthy efforts to recover his throne in 1921 were unfortunately stymied by the self-serving Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy (with the connivance of the Entente powers), thus setting the stage for Hungary's eventual alliance with Germany in World War II and its melancholy post-war history.

I first became aware of Hungary in 1956 when the unsuccessful "Hungarian Revolution" and its defeat by Soviet military intervention were big news. After that, we heard about Hungarian refugees, one of whom was a classmate of mine in eighth grade, another of whom eventually became the bishop who ordained me a priest in 1995. For all my fondness for Hapsburg history, I had little or no interest in their Hungarian connection until my 2001 visit to Budapest, where I said Mass in the Matthias Coronation Church (Buda Castle's Church of the Assumption) and climbed the 100 or so steps to see the Holy Crown on display in the Hungarian Parliament building. Post-communist Hungary is now an EU member state. And, since 1999, it is also a member of NATO. That said, it is a small, landlocked country of at most modest importance in Europe, let alone the world.

Yet, Hungary has become a subject of some considerable fascination in the world of political punditry - both right and left. For some on the right, it has become a place for pilgrimage - most recently by Tucker Carson himself. That in turn has heightened hostility to Hungary's current autocrat on the part of the left.

How bad a tyrant Viktor Orban, Hungary's dictator, is something that can, of course, be debated. That he seems like the sort of ruler a Trump tends to be attracted to accounts for much of his current "culture war" significance. Obviously, he has garnered a lot of attention because of his hostility to immigrants. Of course, unlike those trying to enter the United states, few if any immigrants actually want to settle in Hungary. Hardly anyone actually wants to go to Hungary. All of which makes Tucker Carson and company's fawning worship of Hungary's otherwise unimportant dictator so strange - and so significant.

Twentieth-century American "conservatives" spanned the spectrum from ideological libertarianism to neo-liberal capitalism to nostalgia for "traditional" social arrangements. Now, however, as it has degenerated more and more into a "populist" personality cult, what passes for "conservatism" in America is increasingly become a vehicle for hostility to traditional American values and institutions and admiration for anti-democratic but otherwise unprincipled dictators.

Sadly, Hungary has had to endure a very bad century - from the the brief but traumatic communist takeover that followed the tragic fall of the Hapsburg Empire, through Admiral Horthy's tyranny and alliance with Nazi Germany, through 45 years of Soviet domination, to Viktor Orban's performative authoritarianism. 

That said, it is the increasingly cruelly authoritarian, anti-democratic, and anti-American character of contemporary American "conservatism" that poses such a great danger to American society and institutions. Right-wingers' performative worship of petty dictators like Viktor Orban is a symbolic way of expressing that anti-democratic and anti-American authoritarianism and cruelty. That is what this is all about - not Viktor Orban, about whom the less said the better.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Assumption

In modern Italy, the mid-August holiday is known as Ferragosto, which comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti, a holiday in honor of the Emperor Augustus. After Rome had become Christian, they kept the holiday and its royal resonance, but they refocused it on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - the ancient belief of the Church “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" [Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus]. 

To an ancient Christian audience, already well acquainted with the Old Testament, the identity of the woman in today's somewhat strange 1st reading [Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10] would have been obvious. She is Israel, God's Chosen People, bringing to birth the Messiah, thanks to whom Israel has been expanded now to include all nations and peoples in a new and enlarged People of God, the Church, which continues the task of bringing Christ into the world. It is easy to recognize the story of the Church in the image of this woman - and equally easy to see her symbolized by Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Mary's prayer in the Gospel we just heard [Luke 1:46-55], Mary united herself with God's actions on our behalf and invites us to identify ourselves too with God's plan for the world.

Now that the Risen Christ has ascended to his throne in heaven, the Church remains behind, still suffering from all sorts of evils, but full of hope and confidence in the future.

But, meanwhile, we are still surrounded on all sides by so much bad news. Our world is full of natural and human-made disasters – climate change, economic crises, once stable societies unravelling, once-trusted institutions breaking down, as well as inexplicable personal tragedies and a persistent pandemic that we never seem able to escape from completely.

In our world now, in which death always appears to have the final word, what we hope to be appears at best as a hope, at worst just a wish.

But the wish has been transformed into hope by Christ, the first of all the human race to be raised from the dead, or, as Saint Paul puts it, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep [1 Corinthians 15:20-27]. In ancient times, the springtime offering of the first fruits signified the dedication of the entire harvest to God. So the resurrection of Christ (which took place on the day of the offering of the first fruits) points ahead to the final resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. By raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious.

In Mary's assumption, we have fast-forwarded to what God, having already accomplished in Christ, plans yet to accomplish in us. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope. Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church, as we are now, with the Church, as we hope to be then.

And so today the Church exults with Mary in praise of what God, through Christ, has already done for the world and is continuing to do. Today the Church exults with Mary in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord, who, in exalting Mary, has shown us our future.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there.  For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Stanislaus Church, Pleasant Valley, NY, August 15, 2021.

Image: Titian, The Assumption (1516-1518), Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Monday, August 9, 2021

That Special Relationship

That the United States and the United Kingdom enjoy some sort of "special" relationship was probably unavoidably built in to the circumstances of American history. Thus, in the 19th century, when asked to name the single greatest fact in modern political history, the German statesman Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said: "The inherent and permanent fact that North America speaks English." In terms of this fact's impact upon Germany in two 20th-century wars, Bismarck could hardly have been more prescient.

Eighty years ago this week (August 9-12, 1941), Bismarck's fear found further fulfillment in the famous on-ship wartime meeting between FDR and Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that led inexorably to Allied victory in Word War II and a post-war world in which the "Atlantic Alliance" has been an important pillar. That famous meeting was part of America's downpayment on the hope Churchill had expressed so eloquently in his famous post-Dunkirk speech in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, when he promised to "carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The 1983 TV miniseries Winds of War portrayed the Roosevelt-Churchill meeting as a "Changing of the Guard" from the declining British power to the rising American power. It was that, of course, with all the stresses and stains that inevitably accompany such a "changing of the guard, a shift soothed in so many ways by the two powers' common language, shared history, and cultural closeness, expressed ritually by the two leaders through the joint church service they celebrated on the HMS Prince of Wales. (That cultural closeness continues to show itself in all sorts of ways, not least in the obsessive fascination Americans continue to have for the British royal family, compared to their almost complete indifference to most other European royalties.)

It is often alleged, not incorrectly, that the "special relationship" has meant more to the British than it has to Americans. Whatever else may happen, however, American audiences can be counted on to stream expectantly each new season of The Crown and eagerly watch reruns of Downton Abbey. But, beyond that cultural fascination, are there other aspects of the "special relationship" we Americans might profit from attending to? 

One obvious aspect of British politics that is often pointed to in conspicuous contrast to the U.S. is the fact that Britain's Conservative Party displays little or none of the American Republican Party's ideological backwardness on climate change and other cultural issues. This, of course, is also true of continental conservatism, especially in its post-war Christian Democratic form. On most such matters, the U.S. Republican party and whatever is left of the American conservative movement have been real outliers. Of course, "conservatism" is a vague and malleable concept. Even so Americans might well learn from its much healthier expressions of on the other side of the Atlantic.

It is true, of course, the U.K. has succumbed somewhat to the cultural and class conflicts, especially in response to globalization, that are recognizably similar to some of the current tribal divisions in the U.S. The vaguely termed phenomenon of "populism" is evident in Britain (as elsewhere on the continent). Even so, it seems that the British may be managing it better. For all the popular superficial comparisons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not another Donald Trump and, whatever his limitations, has at least managed to get majority support (something trump never did) and to govern his country much more effectively than Trump did ours. Of course, one reason this has been possible has also been Britain's sensible parliamentary form of government in which the chimera of "bipartisanship" does not exist to stifle the expressed will of the voters.

The contemporary U.K. does, however, suffer from a very specific and dangerous variety of tribalism in the form of an old-fashioned, legitimate localism which has been dangerously distorted into separatism, especially in Scotland. Of course, Scotland has long maintained not only its distinctive cultural identity within the United Kingdom, but also its own legal system, religious establishment, and educational system. Scotland's distinctiveness was more recently reinforced by devolution. Perhaps, an even better approach might have been a more complete federalization of the UK, with each of its four components - England, Scotland Wales, and Northern Ireland - enjoying an appropriate level of recognized local autonomy. 

But there is healthy federalism, and there is unhealthy federalism. The desire to maintain Scotland's distinctive legal, religious, and educational institutions reflects a desire for a healthy federalism. But the bizarre idea that Scotland, with less than 10% of the UK's population should have been able to veto Brexit, would represent an unhealthy form of federalism. That unhealthy form of federalism is, incidentally, what the U.S. suffers from - a system in which, especially by means of the Senate, an ever decreasing minority of voters can veto the manifest will of the majority. Thus, although Republican senators haven’t represented a majority of the U.S. population since at least the 1990s, still the Republican party controlled the Senate from 1995 through 2007 and again from 2015 until 2021 - and for at least as long and the Democrats remain too cowardly to abolish the filibuster, continue in effect to control the Senate even now.  James Madison has often been called "the Father of the Constitution," but he was not alone in being most especially disheartened by the compromise which gave each state equal representation in the Senate. The U.K. would be well advised to avoid traveling down the path of such unhealthy American federalism.

While our unhealthy, distinctively American form of federalism remains a perennial American weakness, Bonapartism would seem to be a more immediately pressing problem. The American attraction to British culture means that via The Crown, many more Americans are aware, than might otherwise be the case, of the story of Lord Mountbatten's alleged flirtation with a right-wing coup against Harold Wilson's government. The accuracy of The Crown's depiction has been challenged, and we will likely never know the full story, but it seems evident that something was seriously amiss. And, as Alex von Tunzelmann has suggested in Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, it likely was some form of personal intervention on the Queen's part that put an end to it.  That is a good argument for the healthy British institution of constitutional monarchy (a perduring healthy political institution which we Americans have been deprived of by our distinctive history.) For the U.S. even without the protection of a monarchy, this highlights the value of and need for strong constitutional guardrails and a healthy "deep state" that is committed to maintaining those guardrails. Recent events in the US in the destructive final year of the Trump presidency have once more reminded us of this.

The reality of the often over-hyped "special relationship" never matched its myth. But we have long shared a lot; and we can, if we are willing, to continue to learn from one another.

(Photo: FDR and Churchill meet at the Atlantic Conference, Placentia Bay, August 9-12, 1941.)

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Not Giving Up

There are times in life when nothing seems to go right, despite all our best efforts. We try our best, but it just isn’t good enough. We feel too much is being demanded of us, too much expected of us. We’re worn out and want to give up – like Elijah in today’s 1st reading.

Elijah was the most remembered Old Testament prophet. He resisted the Northern Kingdom’s corruption, whose pagan Queen, Jezebel, had corrupted Israel’s religion with worship of the foreign god Baal.

Elijah’s frustration followed what should have been his hour of triumph. After a dramatic competition with 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, which the God of Israel had won, Elijah then executed the 450 pagan prophets, and God finally ended Israel’s 3-year drought. Instead of triumph, however, Elijah then had to flee from the Queen, who was determined to kill him in revenge.  He descended from the mountaintop of elation into the desert of despondency – much as many of us have experienced going from a real sense the pandemic was ending a month ago to where we find ourselves now. That is where we encounter him today - on the run, exhausted in body, and broken in spirit, filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Most of us don’t lead such significant public lives, and our own dramas of frustration and failure seldom seem so dramatic. Occasionally, however, the feelings of otherwise ordinary people spill out in public - increasingly erupting in inter-personal and inter-group conflicts, verbal assaults on social media, and the kinds of violent acts we have become all too familiar with in our country. And, as our society continues to fracture along overlapping economic, cultural, and political fault-lines, feelings of frustration frequently spill out in bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling – malicious behaviors, which (as we just heard from Saint Paul) grieve the Holy Spirit of God.

In contrast, Paul instructed the Ephesians to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done!

So how does one get from here to there?

Ready to give up, Elijah fell asleep under a tree. Awakened by an angel, he found the nourishment he needed and which he would not normally have expected to find there in the desert. He should have recognized that as a sign that help was on the way. But, as often happens when we find ourselves in difficult times, he didn’t. So depressed was he that, even after being helped, he fell asleep again - only to be wakened and fed again.  Apparently, Elijah was ready to give up on God, but God was not willing to give up on Elijah.

God really was demanding a lot from Elijah. Hence, God’s unwillingness to let him give up, but hence also his readiness to accompany Elijah on the way, personally providing him with what he would need.

None of us is Elijah, of course. Yet God does expect real results from each of us as well. We too may feel at times as if too much is being expected of us. After all, who can really be expected to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – especially when it seems to produce few if any benefits?

Just as God was prepared to accompany Elijah and personally provide him with whatever he would need, our challenge is to trust he does the same for us on our own difficult, tedious journey.  As Saint Paul has reminded us, Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God. Paul’s reminder is always timely – but never more so than in those times and situations when there is so much in the world to be discouraged about and we too are tempted to give up.

As we have been hearing now week after week, Jesus, the Bread of Life, is our very visible food for the journey – our life-long journey out of the desert of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling to the mountain where, having experienced for ourselves God’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, we can at least begin to become in turn people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for the life of the world.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY, August 8, 2021.

(Image: Dieric Bouts, Prophet Elijah in the Desert, Altarpiece in Saint Peter in Leuven, Belgium, c. 1465.)

Friday, August 6, 2021

Apostolic Life

Today is the 800th anniversary of the death of Saint Dominic, on August 6, 1221. As so often happens in the history of the Church, Dominic was the right person at the right time. In the words of Isaac Hecker: "Every age of the Church has its own characteristic form of expression. There is something about the sanctity of each age peculiar to itself." In the high middle ages, this found fullest expression in "Dominic and Francis, who with their mission of newer knowledge and fresher love went forth and met the errors and vices of their age, attracting men's hearts anew to religion and the service of God" [Sermon, The Saint of Our Day, 1863].

In Dominic's day, many people were increasingly attracted to forms of religious expression which seemed more apostolic and evangelical, more reflective of the image of a pilgrim Church. Unfortunately this frequently expressed itself in unorthodox versions of this quest, such as the Waldensians and the Albigensians. A critical combination of factors contributed to this, notably the widely perceived shortcomings of many of the clergy and the appalling absence of adequate catechesis and doctrinal formation among most laypeople. It has been alleged that many who embraced heretical movements were largely ignorant of the orthodox Catholicism that they were ostensibly abandoning. Perhaps not that much has really changed in these 800 years? 

The proper Preface used in the Dominican Rite for this feast refers to the revival of the apostolic way of life through Saint Dominic. Born in Castile in 1170, Dominic started as a cathedral canon. As such, in 1203 he accompanied his bishop to Denmark, where he had been sent on a mission by the king. En route, they stopped in Toulouse, where he spent a night successfully persuading an Albigensian to return to the Church. From this and subsequent experiences emerged Dominic's distinctive vocation to combine doctrinal seriousness and an apostolic style of life, embodied eventually in his Order of Preachers (The Dominicans). At that time, it was still the case that the only "ordinary" preachers were bishops. Hence the famous anecdote, recounted in a 14th-century sermon by Blessed Jordan of Pisa, about Pope Innocent III asking, "Who is this man who wants to found an Order consisting entirely of bishops?" Dominic didn't desire to be a bishop, but he did found a distinct Order, he and his companions basing themselves on the Rule of Saint Augustine. Compared with other communities, the Dominicans were distinctive in the manner in which freedom for mission was prioritized over observance.

As a mendicant community, attached to no one particular place (unlike monks), the Dominicans went where their preaching was needed. As a preaching order, they gave a high priority to study and became an important part of the high medieval development of scholastic philosophy and theology in Europe's new universities. Hence the permanent prominence of the two great medieval Dominican Doctors of the Church, Saint Albert the Great (1200-1289) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Along with the friars, women have long been part of the Dominican Order - from the beginning as cloistered Dominican nuns and later additionally as active Sisters, e.g., Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Like many Catholics of my time and place, I was educated by Dominican Sisters in elementary school. The Sisters, whose religious initials were OP (Ordo Praedicatorum, i.e., "Order of Preachers"), were sometimes referred to - more humorously than maliciously - as "Our Problem." Actually, they were dedicated educators and among the most positive formative influences in that time and place. After all, it was Sisters, the Church's closest approximation at that time to an apostolic way of life, who made Catholic schools a cornerstone of 20th-century American Catholic experience.

Dominic was canonized in 1234 by Pope Gregory IX, who declared: "I knew him as a steadfast follower of the apostolic way fo life. There is no doubt that he is in heaven, sharing in the glory of the apostles themselves

Image: Painting The Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic (c. 1429) by Blessed Fra Angelico da Fiesole (1395-1455), Legion of Honor, San Francisco.